Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel, an outspoken advocate of tougher campaign finance laws who has been criticized as too partisan by some Republicans, says she’s open to a GOP idea of increasing campaign contribution limits as a way to stem the flow of money to super PACs and other outside groups.
“I wouldn’t object to the raising of contribution limits,” the Democratic appointee told POLITICO in an interview. “But I wouldn’t want to totally eliminate contribution limits because what would worry me about that is that the candidates would then become like the super PACs, and it would drown out small donors.”
The notion of raising contribution limits has had strong support among Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, amid concerns that outside groups are gaining undue influence over the outcome of elections because they can accept unlimited contributions.
Under current federal election law, individuals donating to candidates through their FEC-regulated campaign committees can give a maximum of $5,400 each election cycle. Any changes to contribution limits would have to come from Congress.
Ravel, who joined the commission in 2013 after serving as the chairwoman of California’s state ethics panel, didn’t specify a higher amount that she would be willing to support.
But she repeatedly stressed an openness to compromise with Republicans, as she comes under fire for publicly criticizing the dysfunctional agency and her colleagues in a recent front-page story in The New York Times. Ravel, who has traveled across the country to speak about the problems regarding the current campaign finance landscape, is quickly raising the profile of the six-member panel, equally split between Republicans and Democrats.
The chairwoman rejected criticism of her as a “radical partisan.” She said she has provided the fourth vote to break gridlock in 20 of 25 cases which the FEC decided last year.
“It’s not like I’m making these concerns public because I’m such a radical,” she said. “It’s from a position of thinking I’m here to do a job, and I think the job is an important one for people. Listen, my family is all in California. I’m now getting teary about it. But seriously, I’m not going to be cross country to do nothing. I’m just not.”
Ravel has also been attacked as showing partisanship in some of her wider causes. She is holding a forum at the FEC next week on the “challenges women face in the political arena.” Critics have said the timing of the event suggests she is trying to promote the candidacy of Democrat Hillary Clinton and as the head of an agency using taxpayer money for partisan purposes.
“Commissioner Ravel should take another crack at crafting this event with the goal of having actual balance and an honest dialogue about this topic. Or better yet, call it off and return the money that would have gone to support this partisan event to the Treasury to reduce our national debt,” blasted Celia Meyer of Independent Women’s Voice in a recent press release.
“Unfortunately, I’m actually not that politically savvy,” Ravel said in response to the criticism. “It didn’t occur to me that it was going to be related to somebody’s announcement. How is it not now related to Carly Fiorina having announced?”
Ravel said she is talking more about the agency publicly in the hopes that voters will become more engaged on campaign finance issues.
“I think that the issue of campaign finance is really important to our Democratic system,” Ravel said. “The conundrum is how to get people to care about it…many are disengaging now because of the sense that their vote doesn’t count, so that’s why I am trying to be more public.”
“It’s not the road to stardom,” she joked. “They’re not going to select me for a movie role anytime soon.”
David Donnelly, executive director of Every Voice – a campaign finance reform group, praised Ravel’s efforts to draw attention to their cause. “Her honesty about the challenges the FEC faces is incredibly refreshing,” he said.
But past and present Republican commissioners don’t believe publicizing the agency should be part of the FEC chair’s role and think it might have done more harm than good.
“Chair Ravel has been very public about her views, inviting questions about her impartiality through her public remarks concerning matters before the FEC and specific cases pending in federal court,” said Carolyn Hunter, one of the GOP members of the commission.
Brad Smith, a former Republican FEC chair, added: “No commissioner, I think, publicly accused their colleagues of simply refusing to enforce the law, and no one tried to use the commission as a vehicle for the personal political causes. The chair then talks about dysfunction. Heal thyself.”
Despite the attacks, Ravel said she is committed to her priorities of greater disclosure and a campaign finance system that levels the playing field.
“I’m doing what I think is right,” she said. “I am a public servant. I am here to do what I think is right for the public.”